Yesterday was the day when the #neverTrumpers came full tilt after the Donald, and if they didn’t succeed in bringing him down this time, they never will.
And if they failed, as I suspect they did, they’ll have only themselves — and, of course, penis jokes — to blame.
The reason they probably failed — we’ll know soon enough, after the next few rounds of voting — is not because they didn’t have all the material they needed to make the case, as Mitt Romney put it, that Trump is a “phony” and a “fraud” who is playing the public for “suckers.”
Of course he is. Everyone who isn’t voting for Trump already knows as much.
No, they’re to blame because the Republicans own him. He’s theirs. They’re responsible for him. Even if Trump is running as much against the Republican establishment as he is against Hillary Clinton, the Trump phenomenon is the inevitable result of a party’s willingness to substitute outrage, resentment and an endless succession of tax cuts for actual policy.
The Republicans can’t disown Trump without disowning his voters, which would mean disowning a huge chunk of the Republican base, which, it turns out, doesn’t seem to care about Trump’s conservative apostasy. What they care about is his willingness to take everyone on, from Muslims to Bushes to Mexicans to even lyin’ Ted and little Marco.
That was never more clear than at the close of the Fox News debate when Trump’s rivals were asked whether they would support Trump should he win the nomination. The question came, remember, after two hours in which the moderators had relentlessly called out Trump for his many inconsistencies, after two hours in which Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had alternated in calling Trump a liar, a con man, a huckster, a danger to democracy, a threat to national security, someone entirely unprepared for the job.
And yet Cruz, Rubio and still-in-the-race John Kasich, each in turn, unashamedly pledged that they would back Trump. And so the game was up.
This was no surprise. After all, Trump and Hillary Clinton couldn’t both be the worst person in the world. The tie naturally went to the Democrat. But if you’re a Trump supporter, you were given all the reason you needed not to believe that Cruz and Rubio were serious. After all, Cruz had had his months-long bromance with Trump, and Rubio had avoided saying anything much about him at all. Why were they suddenly on his case now? (Kasich, for those keeping score at home, remained on the high road, although he can’t really think it’s taking him anywhere.)
Cruz, who had his best debate night, would hit Trump hard, and effectively, on his writing four checks to Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate in 2008. And, with Fox’s help, he would destroy him on his apparent off-the-record remarks to the New York Times that he was more flexible on border walls than he was letting on. Trump got flustered, his face grew red, and calling Cruz “lyin’ Ted” didn’t seem to help at all.
Fortunately for Trump, Rubio, the establishment choice, had a terrible night in what has been a terrible week for him. He repeatedly tried to talk over Trump in a game that Rubio can’t really play. And it was when Rubio was called out for his failed attempts at trying to match Trump vulgarity for vulgarity that it all went to hell.
That was when Trump, because he’s Trump, raised his hands and objected to Rubio’s winking insinuation the other night that Trump’s smallish hands meant a smallish you-know.
And so, we heard this from the man who would be president: “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”
Oh, there’s a problem all right. And it’s not just David Axelrod hilariously tweeting that Trump was asking us once again to trust him on assets we can’t see. And it’s not that Trump really can’t answer any policy questions. And it’s not even, as Trump once said, that he could shoot someone (maybe one of his nightly protesters?) and the faithful wouldn’t desert him.
To see the real problem, we should go back to Romney’s extraordinary speech. No one could recall a time when a party’s previous candidate had come out of retirement to lay into his party’s current front runner. Of course, no one can recall anyone like Donald Trump seemingly headed for the GOP nomination or anyone like Romney having to openly pull for a contested convention (and a Romney draft?) to stop him.
What we saw was mean Mitt, the one who knows how to carve up more than 47 percent of an opponent, hitting Trump for “the bullying, the greed, the showing-off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” The problem for Romney was that nowhere in his speech did he mention how Trump had endorsed him in 2012 or how Romney, who now says that Trump knows nothing about economics, had praised Trump’s business acumen or how Donald and Melania had hosted an Ann Romney birthday party/fundraiser.
And he also didn’t mention, as The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote, how Romney sought out Trump in the first place. How he debased himself in the process. How he wanted Trump’s connection, in Davidson’s words, to the “murky birtherist precincts of right-wing talk radio.” How Romney offered Trump’s birtherism his legitimacy in return.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Trump would say at a rally later that afternoon. “You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
He probably would have. Just as when Cruz, Rubio and Kasich said they’d support Trump as the GOP nominee, they pretty much all did the same.
Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie, Creative Commons, Flickr.